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September 18, 2013

Living church after the fall: A Canadian case study

by Admin

The Rev. Dr. Fletcher examines Anglicanism’s historical theological methodology that gave birth to the practice of contextualizing theological discourse in dialogue with Scripture, tradition and reason.  She then examines the theological learning of the Anglican Church of Canada from their interaction with the survivors of the residential school experiment with Canada’s First Nations peoples and subsequent realization that those peoples needed to contextualize their experience of church to overcome the pervasive aura of colonialism they had experienced for generations.  In the struggle to integrate what we have received from the past and the changing world in which we live hearts and minds can be transformed;  that struggle is the manifestation of our hope.

Living in the aftermath of colonization poses a complex challenge for those of us who understand ourselves to be persons of faith. The legacy of colonization in the experience of the Canadian churches who participated in the residential school experiment in particular has the potential of rendering us speechless. What language can we use to talk of God and of the mission of the church? How do we begin to formulate theology – after the fall?

To speak from the location of the Anglican world about matters theological requires some investigative contemplation. Contrary to the current view of some within the Anglican world, we do not have the comfort of a confessional safety net which defines for us the limits of theological speculation and language. We do not have a long history with black and white declarations of thinking about that which is in and out of bounds. However, we do have a tradition which lends us a way of thinking into the task of theology which is, in my view, particularly helpful for this moment in our church’s story.

Anglican Beginnings

It might be argued that Anglican theology from its earliest enfleshment in the Elizabethan Settlement was a discourse which modeled both theological and cultural hybridity. The consensus which gave us our earliest theological texts in liturgical form were, at best, illustrations of theological hybridity and, at worst, inconsistent compromise. In any case, a hybrid it was. This is not to say that by the time of the British Empire our capacity to negotiate difference had not dramatically shifted; that point will become abundantly clear in the case study which follows. However, I invite us in the first instance to return to a time before the fall….

Richard Hooker, late sixteenth century apologist of the Elizabethan Settlement, was the first individual of note to throw his hat in the ring on the matter of how Anglicans might do the work of theology. It is to several dimensions of Hooker’s thought that I would like to turn as a beginning place: the purpose of theology; the forum for theology; and the nature of the community as location for theology.

First, to intention.  Richard Hooker, unlike key thinkers of the Continental Reformation, was not a proscriptive thinker. Coming after the major drama of the English Reformation had subsided, Hooker’s contribution to theology was largely descriptive. Note: this modus operandi becomes particularly important in the hybridity conversation today as we encounter indigenous voice and meaning-making in the genre of narrative theology.

Hooker chronicled his interpretation of events which framed the basis for the theological consensus which would later become known as Anglicanism. Hooker was well schooled in the genre of Aristotelian logic, and from that formation developed his theological voice as one who moves from the particular to the general. This way of thinking into theology has become foundational in the Anglican tradition. The theologian can only begin with the world as it is. From the encounter with our context and the content of our stories as they are, we begin to interpret and name; such is the purpose of theology.

The theological task of describing, naming and interpreting then unfolds in the context of community. As an apologist committed to an anti-Puritan discourse, Hooker was consistent in his admonitions that the work of theology could not solely reside in the individual. Uncomfortable with Puritan insistence that the individual was a sufficient location for interpreting the inspiration of the Spirit through Scripture, Hooker insisted that the community was the appropriate forum for the work of theology. In particular, the worshipping community was the location where the theology of the people of God was articulated.

In turn, Hooker’s interpretation of the community was modeled on his understanding of the Trinity. Hooker’s concept of union in the Godhead, wherein there was committed relationship (not passing) or union with the other, but also not obliteration of the personal identity of the other, serves as his understanding of community. In community we live in union, or communion with, the other, but also remain distinct. So then, the work of theological interpretation takes account of the common through the lens of respect for the particular or distinct location of the ‘other’- a helpful proscriptive for any movement toward intentional hybridity.

From these basic commitments of Hooker we see an Anglican theological world taking shape. Such a world understands theology as a work which unfolds in relation to the lived experience of the members of a community, with particularity understood in relation to the project of the whole. It fundamentally shapes theology as a practical discipline of communal life which describes and thereby anticipates ways forward, rather than as a doctrinal container which proscribes an uncompromising confessional framework for local application.

Coming on the heels of Hooker, the 17th century Anglican thinkers, known perhaps euphemistically as the Caroline Divines, developed a way of engaging the task of theology which in turn gave birth to a way of thinking theologically in the 18th and 19th centuries that was dubbed as Latitudinarianism. This strain of Anglican thought then communicated an Anglican way of approaching theology which attached relatively little significance to dogmatic truth, ecclesiastical organization and liturgical practice. What is authoritative is defined over time and in context in conversation between tradition and Scripture with the studied application of reason.

We approach then the challenge of coming to the theological voice in the 21st century as ones formed in a tradition where it has long been understood that ideas and ideals must be tested in the crucible of the living; that Christians should live their faith rather than merely profess it; that one does not accept something as true simply because an authority figure has said that it is so. The paradigmatic treatment of this theological approach for Anglicans can be found in The Rule and Exercise of Holy Living by Jeremy Taylor (d.1667). In that treatise, Taylor argues that morality, or theology applied in real time, should be kept in the foreground of the Church’s attention while dogma should be “kept in the shade”. Later generations would attempt to turn such teaching into an admonition to moralisms normalized from a particular hermeneutical frame.  However, that is an unfaithful reading of the text. Taylor would not have presumed in the 17th century to know what would be right living or teaching in the 21st. Rather, his thinking invites us to understand that what is central is the Hapax, or saving work of God in history. It is to a faithful articulation of that meaning that all Christians are called.

Moving ourselves from the 17th century forward, it is to the wisdom of others who have suffered that I invite us to consider a spiritual posture as a necessary companion to our theological commitments as we formulate a way forward in this era of post-colonial understanding. Orthodox Rabbi Irving Greenberg, writing about meaning-making in the aftermath of the horror of the 20th century, wrote, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” Humilitas- with this wisdom the Rabbi articulates for us the necessary spiritual ground for our conversation about theology after the fall. Only with the humility born of  silence in the face of the horror, of which we as human beings know ourselves to be capable, and only with the humility born of a history which shows us how misguided our rendition of Christian meaning can become are we able to move forward.

Herein then we find our beginning place in the quest for a post-colonial theological discourse in the Canadian Anglican world. I invite us to begin from a consideration of the crucible of the living as we have received it through the case study of the residential school experience. We then test anything we might say about God and God’s intention for the world against the backdrop of what we have learned there. From the location of that theological insight we can begin to frame our first words after the fall.

Case Study

The mission of the church, conceived of as a colonial undertaking, caused harm. However well intentioned, the marriage of political and economic colonization with religion formed a socialization project which led to the devastation of generations of indigenous persons from many First Nations communities across Canada. For several decades no corner of the nation was left untouched by the colonizing reach of the residential school experiment.

Despite the intention to promote well-being through the promotion of the gospel, the marriage of gospel with the imposition of culture meant the stripping away of the culture of the other. The assumption of the racial and cultural inferiority of aboriginal persons, set in juxtaposition to the presumed superiority of European culture, meant the practical dehumanization of the other. When Christian leaders of an earlier generation partnered with the government to promote the view that only the assimilated indigenous person was worthy of citizenship and recognition as a person under the law, a trajectory of harm unfolded which wrapped countless children and their families in trauma and dislocation. To replace one culture with another meant that the inferior culture must be stripped away. To accomplish that goal, children were forcibly removed from their families and whole peoples were consequently severed from their kinship groups and the traditional wisdoms which had sustained them throughout their story as a people.

The structure of the residential school project meant that children taken into care by the government were subject to both structural and capricious harm. A grossly under-funded system, which often provided inadequate nutrition, housing, clothing and care, was even less likely to provide effective education. As well, under-funding by the Canadian government meant that in many circumstances poorly supervised children were left vulnerable to the abuses of violence and humiliation by their caregivers. By its very structure, the residential school system created a world in which its own objectives could never be achieved. Rather than empowering children to fully engage the opportunities of Euro-descent culture, residential schools, despite the good intentions of some, left countless children emotionally crippled, effectively illiterate and sitting on the sidelines of Canadian society.  One has to ask, given the spectacularly brutal outcomes, what was the actual goal of the project? Writing in 1967, a Canadian Anglican Bishop protested to the Department of Indian Affairs that the residential schools should be left open even as the Department prepared to close the residential schools as a failed experiment:

We must continue our efforts among the Indians. Although there is no hope for this generation, if we persist, perhaps we will be able to raise up their grandchildren to the level of a servant class.
Bishop of Huron to the Secretary of the DIA, 1967

What was our goal?

The theology which framed the underpinning of this system was malformed. It assumed that the good news of the gospel could be shared through force and coercion. In the context of triumphalist liberal Christianity we enthusiastically embraced the social reconstruction project as a religious work. In our effort to remake the world in our own image, we fell. We know from the lessons of history that the North American colonization project is just the most recent version of a way of configuring the relationship between gospel and power which has led to acts of enormous evil perpetrated against the innocent. We know that in every instance, the use of power for forcible conversion has given way to destructive outcomes; force does not teach a gospel of love.

We are the generation born to formulate a theological language, a theory of mission and its right relation to power in such a time as this. We are the ones asked to move forward after the fall. Where to from here?  It is my belief that new engagement between survivors and descendants of perpetrators from the residential school experience point the way. The place of moving forward which they model is rooted in mutual release. As joint actors in the residential school drama each name their story, one of harm and the other of repentance, a stark truth becomes palpable: no justice is possible in this situation. There is no compensation which can adequately make right the loss of childhood, culture and freedom for several generations and multiple cultures. Can a childhood be given back? It cannot.

If justice then is not the equation which makes sense of moving beyond the harm of colonization, what is? Stories across denominations are surfacing which lend themselves to the motif of reconciliation woven from a genuine accounting of the harm and a sincere plea of repentance. Release of harms received by those injured is the key movement in the unfolding dance of reconciliation, as those injured literally open their arms wide in an embrace of welcome, very like the embrace of the cross. As kinship based cultures, First Nations communities prior to the assimilationist project of our government, welcomed the gospel as communities. Now as communities, indigenous persons are beginning the journey of communal forgiveness and release. There is no reason why such welcome and forgiveness should be possible. For some, it may be inconceivable to imagine, and yet the generosity of spirit expressed by many of those harmed, as they move toward the other in welcome is opening the way for a transfiguration of this old story into a new day. Perhaps if I had not experienced this opening into transfiguration, I would not understand.

On October 9th, 2008 I made my way to the Nisga’a village of Laxgalts’ap.  I made the journey to attend the funeral of Bradley Martin, son of Willard Martin, VST alumnus and Nisga’a hereditary chief.  Bradley had ended his own life.  Over a century before, Christian missionaries had brought their own view of the world to the Nass Valley and had insisted that suicides should be given no proper burial.  The Nisga’a adopted that teaching and have continued to follow it, even as the Church changed its thinking and practice.  Willard insisted on giving his son the dignity of a Christian burial and settlement feast.  I went to support him in his courage and his wisdom, and to honour the life of his son.  Willard, as with many of his people, has survived the trauma of the residential school experience and all of the dislocation that has engendered for so many.  I was very aware of the fact that I carried with me the weight of our history, a colonizing church, a legacy of harm.  I felt shame.

When I arrived, Willard cautioned that there might be very few attending the funeral, as it was breaking with cultural practice.  He then asked me to participate in the liturgy which would honour his son.  To his and my surprise, hundreds of Nisga’a came.  When the Eucharist was celebrated, every single person came forward to receive.  When James, the Nisga’a priest, asked me to walk with him ahead of the casket to the graveside, I looked back.  Ten beautiful young Nisga’a men carried their friend, refusing to put him down until the grave was reached.  With tears streaming down their faces they walked and walked; behind them hundreds of Bradley’s people walked his last mile with him.  We stood around the open grave and then James turned and handed me his prayer book, “You commit him to God for us,” he said.  As I said the words of committal, and we all stood there suffering together, hoping together, past the stain of an incredibly wounding history, I saw that the healing of God was begun.  I saw that the healing water of God’s grace was pouring out to all corners of the earth and nothing was beyond its reach.

With such moments, a beginning place is framed. By grace and the opportunity which repentance and release offers, we are invited to reformulate our understanding of mission and its relationship to power. If we are able to deconstruct our earlier assumptions about the relationship between gospel and culture, we can begin again. While we appear to have understood that religion always reflects culture, we have not always understood that transposing our assumptions about normative culture onto the other, as a necessary dimension of transmission of the gospel, destroys the gospel’s intent. If there is no space for cultural accommodation of the other, then the gospel becomes an agent of hegemonic discourse rather than the liberating word of God’s welcome and mercy. A gospel engaged with, but not normalizing culture is an appropriate vehicle for the transmission of a unitive vision of community which empowers rather than dis-empowers the other. Richard Hooker would concur.

Perhaps in the final instance we are invited in this generation to see that the gospel we carry to the world is itself an act of mercy and reconciliation enfleshed. We are disciples of a Reconciler of who came to bind up the wounds of all those who have been hurt, perhaps firstly by those who have been hurt at the hands of those who thought they were right. A theology which will carry us forward onto new ground is neither the proclamation of any dogmatism, nor any set of moral imperatives or culturally embedded values as necessary companions to the gospel. It is not a project grounded in a notion of power over another. Rather it is the enfleshment of radical love, which by its practice gathers in rather than divides, lifts up rather than steps on, and heals rather than harms.

At a recent academic gathering which drew Anglican and Lutheran theologians together for conversations about our identities as faith communities, I posited the notion that moving beyond colonial history was possible, based on my experience of the walk I am taking with my First Nations brothers and sisters. One Native American theologian protested strongly. He argued that any indigenous person who claimed to be able to move beyond their anger was lying to herself. He stressed that the claim by any Euro-descent person that healing was possible was a reaffirmation of colonizing harm.

I must dispute this view. While honouring that his words may in fact be true for many, they do not reflect my experience of this past decade working under the tutelage of First Nations elders. I have been taught that in the aboriginal thought-world the community seeks balance and harmony. It is understood that the well-being of the community is the goal of communal life, and that this can be achieved through the invitation of all to move into re-balancing and re-harmonizing that which has moved into chaos. Of course to move toward balance as an expression of communal healing demands sacrifice, surrender and release of all that impedes balance and peace in the community, whatever that might be.

In keeping with this wisdom, the Anglican Church of Canada is in the midst of giving birth to drastically new ecclesiological forms. After many years of listening to and talking with our First Nations partners, the General Synod of our national Church at its recent meeting in Halifax (June 09, 2010) established Canon 22. Canon 22 is not yet fully developed, but is the embryo of a new vision for a self-determining indigenous ministry within the larger church. The resolution which was passed with resounding enthusiasm by the Synod provides canonical recognition for the roles of the National Indigenous Bishop (appointed in January, 2007), the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) and Sacred Circle, all key components of the existing indigenous national ministry. This canonical provision establishes, “recognition, jurisdiction and authority within, not separate, and not parallel but truly within,” the church’s canons and constitution.

The canon crafted by the Governance Working Group of the General Synod was left intentionally open-ended, lacking specific details regarding the structures and framework for this ministry, as a vehicle to allow indigenous persons to organically develop the forms by which they will order their life as church. Effectively, this canon makes provision for a 5th ecclesiastical province in the Canadian church which is not geographic but cultural. This province would link indigenous ministry or mission areas across the country in a political unity for decision-making and action in the ecclesial landscape.

To date one new mission area has been created. In the spring of this year Lydia Mamakwa was elected as the first bishop of this first new mission area in Northern Ontario. Speaking to the Synod she called her election and the creation of the area mission, “the first step towards self-determination”.

Conversations are underway in all parts of the country with reference to the creation of further such areas, most notably in the dioceses of Keewatin and Saskatchewan but not excluding the far west.

With this movement toward a self-governing indigenous church, the Anglican Church of Canada opens itself to a new way of expressing its ecclesiology. It recognizes that Euro-descent model of church which defined power and theology in the era of colonialism is no longer an adequate representation of God’s intention for God’s church in this context. A broader and more complex vision for the ways in which the people of God order their life is our future. The leadership of the indigenous church in the unfolding of that vision will be determinative.

As we attempt to live into new words and ways of being, I Corinthians 12:14-26 may be a suitable companion for us. Paul is a master at engaging the genre of hybridity in his writing. Cultural motifs are transposed to create new social imaginaries. With his image of the body Paul speaks to the community at Corinth drawing on an ancient wisdom of how communities configure themselves.  However, Paul takes Aristotle’s image of the body and ‘turns it on its head’. In this passage he insists that the members of the body which are least honoured should be the most honoured; that the least valued should be the most cherished. Such an inversion of the power images familiar in Paul’s day clarifies his intention for the early community of the followers of Jesus. The least among us, the children, will lead us.

My daughters attend high school on the university campus where we live.  University Hill Secondary School is generally regarded to be a first-class high school; academic standards are measured by provincial testing and student achievements are high; it is a school where recruiters from the Ivy League schools come and pitch their tents. I love that school. It is not, however, for any of the reasons I have just named.

In that high school there is a room, known by the students as “Room 16”. Room 16 is the room where students with learning challenges go to manage the complexity of their academic lives. In a world like UHILL it is an unlovely place. In Room 16 there are teachers and learning assistants who deal with the most significant challenges in the system. They are absolutely, unflinchingly committed to the well-being and care of the students entrusted to them. In Room 16 there are students who struggle and suffer and who support and love each other, who believe in each other and cheer one another on like nothing I have ever seen.

Also in Room 16 there is young man whom we will call Alex. He struggles with a severe case of Asperger syndrome. He is one of the gentlest human beings I have ever been privileged to encounter. My daughter Rachel is friends with Alex. Now Rachel is a very smart girl, winning, attractive, popular in her way. And she visits Room 16. One day, after several years of walking the high school walk together, Alex said to Rachel,

“Rachel can I ask you a question? Would it be okay?”

“Yes Alex, please ask me what you want to.”

“Rachel,” he said, “Why do you come to Room 16? You don’t look like you belong here.”

“Well Alex,” said Rachel, “I can only hear with one ear, so I need to come here. I have to work harder than most people to understand what is being said to me. I might not look like I belong, but you and I, we’re Room 16 people together.”

And so the story goes. Nothing is ever as it appears to be, and it is in discovering ourselves in the reflection of the other that makes new sight possible, and self-knowledge probable.

When Paul addressed the community at Corinth, his message was this radical. He transposed one cultural meaning onto another, and in so doing created a new social archetype. In the face of all of our hopes of glory, the glory the world might give, or even the church—in its own limited way—Paul speaks. And he says each member of the body is most beloved, and the least among us most beloved of all. His summons to us is that we see ourselves in a new way, not as neo-empire rebuilding wannabes, not as saviours who will fix the world or save the Church, but as committed disciples of the word of life who will love the world, who will live as love in the world by seeing, by understanding that we, beloved children of God, community of the faithful, we are Room 16, that place where all meanings are transposed across the boundaries of our expectations. Blessed be. By a gospel of humility and compassion, and only by grace, will Room 16 renew the world. The task of framing theology, of articulating a way forward in discourse about God and the mission of the church begins there in Room 16that place where we find the other, and in our encounter with the difference which otherness implies become capable of knowing ourselves.

To be rendered mute in the face of the legacy of colonization is, perhaps, one enticing option for those of us who have lived on the domination side of theological discourse. However, the world continues to suffer and the gospel still summons us beyond the death-scapes of our own making. To remain mute, for fear of causing further harm is to create new genres of harm. There is a medieval miracle play entitled, The Life of Any Man. In this play Satan is the central character. Unlike the Hollywood version, the Satan in this play is an ordinary man. He wanders through every scene of 14th century life saying only one line. As he encounters the various faces of human suffering in that time of the Black Death, of poverty, famine and war, Satan has only one line. He approaches those who suffer and sadly he says, “There is nothing to be done; nothing to be done.” The wisdom of our tradition encourages us to see that passivity in the face of despair is perhaps the greatest spiritual threat of all. When our despair is cracked wide open on the sharp rocks of difference and the surprise of the other, there life becomes possible.

The expansive ground of Anglican theology allows people to re-interpret meaning and re-formulate theological language. As with Anglicans in previous generations, we embark anew on the work of interpreting gospel meaning in our location for this time, keenly aware that the experience of some, in this case those harmed by earlier formulations of gospel meaning, pushes us to remake our sight.

So here then we move from the silence of humiliation to our first words after the fall – what might they be? For Canadian Anglicans in this generation perhaps we might say that there is no harm which is beyond the reach of God’s healing grace, that there is no theological frame which cannot be re-thought as the saving work of God in history continues to disclose itself once more in every generation. All around us in these hours the signs of a new world struggling to be born paint themselves in difference across the backdrop of former desolations. The saving work of God in history continues despite our past harmful choices. We begin in Room 16. Perhaps struggle is another word for hope.  Mercy abounds and deliverance remakes us.

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